Mitchell Reiss comes to Jonathan Powell’s magnum opus on the peace process under the Blair regimine a little later than some others, but given he was a key player in the Bush administration for latter years of the process, he is, as one might expect, a good deal more critical that some the earlier entrants in the debate. Although there are echoes of Mandelson’s: “the Process is the bare minimum of the policy you need…” He doesn’t pull many punches.
Powell’s body of work over the next decade thus renders more than a little hypocritical his criticism of the Major government’s decision to resume contacts with the IRA after its bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996. Powell writes that Major sent exactly the wrong message to the IRA: “The government response should have been that they would never deal with the IRA again until they had put violence aside for good. . . . [It] helped convince them to continue with their dual strategy of violence and politics together.” Aside from Powell’s refusal to serve champagne to Sinn Fein officials visiting Chequers right after the IRA’s brazen, midday kidnapping and attempted murder of a former comrade from the center of Belfast, it is difficult to distinguish his approach from his predecessor’s. One searches in vain for any guiding moral principle here, or any willingness at all to sanction (or even properly define) unacceptable behavior.
HOwever, he goes on to argue that the British were more pliable in negotiations with SF. Indeed it was left to the Irish Government to hold the line on a last minute ‘demand’ that the IRA be allowed to keep some of its weapons:
In July 2005, the IRA had finally agreed to decommission all its weapons. At the last minute, Adams called No. 10 to demand that some of the weapons not be destroyed so that the IRA could arm itself against possible attacks from dissident members. Unless this was allowed, he threatened, decommissioning would not proceed. The Blair government conceded, but wanted to check with Dublin. Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell refused to acquiesce in the backsliding, despite enormous pressure. Powell told Adams of the problem, and Adams gave way. Decommissioning took place as planned.
Reiss’s interview in the Irish Times a few years back was a clear signal within the process that the US wanted cast iron assurances on policing and proper and binding committment to justice. A move that was not entirely popular inside the modernising end of the DUP…
He goes on to portray the situation as a front between the Irish and the US:
The consensus of the U.S. and Irish governments was that Adams was in control of the movement and had been since the Good Friday Agreement, when two small breakaway groups formed separate dissident movements. Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement itself could be seen as a betrayal of the IRA’s founding credo, yet Adams still managed to sell the deal to the vast majority of his followers. But most clarifying of all is Adams’s own admission, on BBC Radio earlier this year, that invoking the threat of a possible split was “just a necessary part of the conflict resolution process.” In other words, it was ploy and bluff.
Reiss also accuses Powell of skating over “McDowell’s role in the decommissioning drama and omits entirely the debate over visas for Sinn Fein”. Indeed, he notes that Powell makes little mention of the four horsemen in identifying , George Mitchell, and efforts of Clinton to unblock the various impasses.
But in summation, he is ultimately generous to his British counterparts, noting that: “Better to have too much patience in such affairs than too little.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty